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Africa Watches Nigeria’s Battle Over Cash

Times Staff Writer

Mohammed Abacha says he made his hundreds of millions of dollars the old-fashioned Nigerian way: He cashed in when his father, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, ruled this West African nation.

“I was fortunate to be my father’s son,” Abacha, 36, said nonchalantly during an interview in his northern Nigeria home. “Opportunities were there, and we took them.

“My father was not the first person to be the president, and he will never be the last,” Abacha said. “The present one has children, some a little older than me and some my age. Opportunities abound. I’m sure they are making use of it.”

By some accounts, Abacha controls billions of dollars in family wealth, enough to count him among the richest people in the world. But his bank accounts in Switzerland, Britain, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, among other places, were frozen after the Nigerian government claimed that his father looted the country when the general ruled from 1993 to 1998.

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The funds, officials say, could be used to improve the lives of millions of Nigerians, most of whom live in grinding poverty. But analysts and others doubt this nation’s citizens will ever see a penny now in Abacha’s hands.

Some question whether the government has done enough to seize the wealth. President Olusegun Obasanjo, who last month was reelected for a second four-year term, and other officials blame Abacha and foreign banks for not cooperating.

The fight to recoup the billions is seen as a test case across the continent. Obasanjo and other African leaders, seeking much-needed debt relief and increased foreign aid, have promised to fight government corruption, end civil wars and promote democracy.

If Nigeria is successful in its battle with Abacha, other African countries -- which, by their calculations, have lost a total of $140 billion to corrupt leaders in the last three decades -- might be emboldened to follow suit.

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Late last month, the new government in Kenya disclosed plans to recoup $2 billion in allegedly looted public funds stashed in foreign bank accounts of 10 unnamed people, widely believed to be linked to the administration of former President Daniel Arap Moi.

“It is completely unacceptable that only 10 individuals can own a sum of money roughly equivalent to the total of Kenya’s annual budget while our hospitals go without medicine and schoolchildren have to contend with scarce materials in our schools,” said Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi.

In the annals of corrupt dictatorships, Gen. Abacha stands out for the speed with which he swiped his loot. Zairian despot Mobutu Sese Seko took 30 years to plunder billions from his mineral-rich country, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Former Indonesian strongman Suharto also took three decades to amass a business empire worth about $30 billion, at least some of it from legitimate enterprises.

Investigators say that during his nearly five-year rule, Abacha skimmed money from the country’s oil exports, siphoned funds from state-owned companies and, in a Nigerian twist, sent errand boys to fetch him truckloads of cash from the nation’s central bank.

Mohammed Abacha said that his family was independently wealthy and that he was involved in a “lot of [business] activities,” though he declined to elaborate. “If I tell you, it would take three days,” he said.

Abacha spends much of his day in his low-slung house near the center of Kano. The house is decorated with items imported from Dubai and Taiwan: faux gold ornamentation, cut-glass chandeliers, gold- and silver-plated light fixtures. Clear plastic runners protect plush Chinese rugs.

On a recent day, the temperature soared past 110 degrees. Outside, a covered garage protected Abacha’s fleet of Mercedes-Benzes. Inside, he soaked up the air-conditioning and the reality TV cable channel. The big-screen television competed for wall space with life-size portraits of himself, his father, his mother and other family members.

Associates say the younger Abacha operated an oil services company, a now-defunct airline, a tannery and other businesses that required him to travel extensively to Europe and the United States.

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There was a time when Abacha’s lifestyle changed dramatically, just after the sudden death of his father in 1998, which paved the way for freedom of political prisoners -- including Obasanjo, a former military head of state who spent three years in prison after the general’s regime convicted him of treason.

In 1999, Obasanjo received the support of Nigeria’s powerful generals when he won the presidency in a military-supervised election. Once elected, he vowed to tackle the rot of corruption.

His biggest target was the younger Abacha, who was charged with dozens of crimes, including money laundering and conspiracy to commit murder. The government maintains that the Abacha family stole about $4 billion during the general’s rule.

Relying on statements by Mohammed Abacha’s associates, Nigerian investigators said he ordered the 1996 killing of Kudirat Abiola, the wife of opposition leader Moshood Abiola. She had been campaigning for the release of her husband, who was imprisoned in 1994, not long after he was perceived to have won the presidency in elections annulled by the government.

Moshood Abiola died in incarceration a month after Gen. Abacha’s death.

In 1999, Mohammed Abacha found himself in jail, staring at a long imprisonment while awaiting trial. In the interview, he described how he would wake up each morning and pray, then wait for Fatima, his fiancee, to bring him food and inspiration.

It took three years, but Abacha’s prayers were answered, thanks in large part to traditional politics. Among those pressuring Obasanjo for his release was Alhaji Ado Bayero, who as the emir of Kano is the traditional and religious head of this Islamic city.

Nigeria’s leaders know that the emir’s authority extends far beyond presiding over the 1,000-year-old city’s spectacular durbar, or cavalry parade. By simply giving an order, the emir can quell religious riots or urge his supporters not to support federal government policies.

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A year ago, Obasanjo announced that the government had reached a deal with Abacha and Swiss authorities: Abacha would be allowed to keep $100 million if he returned $1 billion of the family fortune that investigators had succeeded in locating.

In an interview with Tell, a top-selling newsweekly magazine, Obasanjo said the deal was “one of the hardest decisions I have [had] to make in my life because I know that the Abacha family hadn’t legitimately done any work to deserve $100 million.” He said the move saved the government millions of dollars in legal costs and achieved something that Congolese and Iranians had not: recouped embezzled funds from former ruling families.

In announcing the agreement, Obasanjo denied rumors that other charges, including murder, would be dropped against Abacha.

Two months later, the Nigerian Supreme Court voted 4 to 1 to throw out the murder charges. “Suspicion, however well founded, does not amount to a prima facie case,” said the judge who issued the decision.

In September, Kano state Gov. Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso and other chiefs and religious leaders successfully lobbied Obasanjo to release Abacha on bail. In the city of Kano, thousands of supporters took to the streets to greet a police convoy and a fleet of luxury limousines that returned Abacha home.

Within days of Abacha’s release, Swiss and Nigerian authorities acknowledged that the deal to return $1 billion to Nigeria had collapsed because Abacha had not signed legal documents releasing the money.

Abacha had his freedom and had kept his claim to the cash.

Abacha, the eldest of nine children, set about to rebuild his life, marrying his fiancee and reconnecting with the townsfolk in Kano. Because people needing food, advice and money come to see him at all hours of the day and night, he built at his high-walled compound a reception area -- next to a tiny pen holding half a dozen fidgety antelopes.

“When I get tired, I just close my gate and rest,” he said.

Abacha, who often wears traditional robes over his tall, thin frame, said he was unfairly targeted. His bank accounts, he said, had been illegally frozen, though his lawyers were working to undo that. He has shelved many “beautiful business ideas” until his money is available.

Why, he asked, was the government prosecuting only him when past military leaders and their relatives also had amassed vast fortunes during their rule?

“Why the Abacha family alone? Why Mohammed Abacha? They should answer that.... It’s because my father is dead,” he said, adjusting his gray pinstriped kaftan. “It’s all about how they could get money out of my pocket for no justifiable reason.”

Abacha denied that he had agreed to turn over the money held in foreign banks.

“If he has one, present it, show it to people,” he said about Obasanjo’s claim to a deal. “You cannot have an agreement with yourself. I have been in prison for three years. If in actual fact I didn’t have a case, I would have been torn to pieces, to shreds. I wouldn’t have started a fight.

“If there was an iota of evidence or truth in the whole thing, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you,” he said.

Anti-corruption activists say that while Obasanjo and Abacha battle over the money, foreign banks have been the winners because they have use of it. U.S.-based Citibank has been criticized by Congress for allowing the Abacha family -- and the president of Gabon, Omar Bongo -- to move suspicious funds.

Citing Gen. Abacha as a prime example of why financial institutions should be more diligent when banking the money of corrupt leaders, activists in Africa have been campaigning for an international convention that would make it easier to repatriate embezzled money.

“There is a quiet complicity from these banks that look the other way to earn profits from corrupt dictators,” said Mwalimu Mati, who heads the Kenyan chapter of the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International.

“When [Africans] overthrow the dictator, a dispute always arises about the ownership of the money. They have to be more diligent, especially when they know their customer is an African leader responsible for huge amounts of public money.”

Mohammed Abacha said Nigerians should believe him when he says that all the money in the foreign banks belongs to him -- although he wouldn’t provide details.

“There has been a lot of insincerity from the onset,” he said. “If there is sincerity, I think everybody should be looked at.”


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